Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

'I know what you're thinking.'

“I know what you’re thinking,” Congal said. “‘Aren’t Moors supposed to be black?’ and whatnot. But that’s the genuine article. Prays to Mahomet and heals the sick. And he can always finish browning in the fires of Hell.”

A flicker of worry crossed the back of Aed’s mind. The Saracen had been traveling with Congal for days.

“Does he speak any Gaelic?”

Congal sighed and flung a weary glance over his shoulder. “Aye, he’s been doctoring all the way, so I had to teach him to say ‘Cough, please,’ and ‘Does he have a fever,’ and whatnot. And I taught him how to say ‘Cock off, cunt face,’ but I told him—”

Congal’s men snorted and broke into grins, and Congal got choked up with snickering.

“I told him—it means ‘No, thank you!’ Aed, you must invite him to dine with you. Would you care for some cheese? – Cock off, cunt face! It is fucking hilarious!”

Congal showed signs of succumbing to his own hilarity, so Aed shoved past him to meet the Saracen. And the Saracen turned his head to watch him come.

His stare was so piercing and his eyes so startling a blue that Aed stopped a stride shorter than he had meant. He faced Aed not like a tired, frightened prisoner—not like a slovenly heathen dragged before a Christian lord—but like a nobleman who had not received his due.

Aed had been unwise.

Another flash of disquiet warned Aed he had been unwise. He knew Gaethine was going to be furious. Sigefrith would be outraged. But he had not given much thought to the Moor.

“Do you speak English?” Aed asked.

“I do.”

“I welcome you to Carn Liath.”

The Saracen said nothing.

The Saracen said nothing. Like a bird of prey, he seemed to Aed. Keen eyes on either side of a thin, hooked beak; and a face lacking any mobility of features that might allow an expression other than cruel and cold.

Congal had stopped laughing by now and stomped up to stand beside Aed, clinking all over with silver. “Don’t you have any guest manners in your country, Mahomet?” he snapped. “Lord Aed says welcome.”

'Don't you have any guest manners in your country, Mahomet?'

The Saracen looked at Congal, swiveling his entire head like a hawk. “I will not accept his hospitality because I did not accept his invitation. And my name is Yusuf, John.

Congal moved, perhaps to swing or lunge. Aed shot out his hand and caught him by a fistful of sleeve.

“I am sorry about the invitation!” he said, more loudly than he had meant, in an attempt to drown out any impending insult of Congal’s.

Congal backed down, but he stood glowering, with Aed’s knuckles biting into his biceps as a warning.

“It was very…”

Aed tore through his small stock of English. How did one say “urgent”?


The Saracen’s face finally moved. His mouth thinned into a faint sneer of disgust.

“My patients in Lothere, they too are important. But not to you, I trust. What do you want from me? I already sent you medicines and advice at Lady Gwynn’s behest—”

“I want you to follow me,” Aed interrupted, curt again in spite of his original intention to be kind. Congal knew Aed had sent to Lady Gwynn for the medicine, but Congal’s men didn’t. Gaethine would surely refuse all treatment if he ever learned.

“Are we going to see Gaeth?” Congal asked, suddenly bouncing like a puppy. “Christ! I cannot wait to see his face! His eyeballs are going to fall out onto the blankets! Gaeth!”

He twisted out of Aed’s grip and bolted for Gaethine’s door.

Aed shouted vainly, “Congal!”

He hadn’t meant to drag the Saracen straight to Gaethine’s room without first offering him refreshment and a chance to change his clothes, but there was no reining in Congal. Gaethine was going to be furious. If Congal let the secret slip, Gaethine was likely to lock his door.

“Come with me, please,” Aed said roughly. Like it or not, he was committed by now to the role of captor rather than gracious host.

The Saracen unfolded his arms and followed.

“Gaeth, my good man!” Congal’s voice boomed through the doorway of Gaethine’s bedchamber. “Wait until you see what I brought back for you!”

As Aed rounded the foot of the stairs, he heard Gaethine guess, “A wolf pelt?”

Aed winced. Gaethine’s voice seemed so frail after Congal’s bellowing. And he sounded glad to see him. That would not last long.

“Were you wanting one?” Congal laughed.

Aed strode into the room, his face grim but his heart hammering. Gaethine was going to be furious. For the hundredth time Aed assured himself it would be worth it.

Congal trilled, “If there’s being any man to whom I’d give the skin off my own back, ’tis you, Gaeth.”

He started squirming out of his wolfskin, and Gaethine shooed him off with a spidery hand, smiling in spite of himself. The Saracen stood in the doorway, arms folded, hidden from Gaethine by the bed curtain.

“No?” Congal asked, slipping his arm back through an arm hole. “You might give it some thought. What I brought you isn’t smelling as bad, but it’s having twice as many fleas!”

He grabbed the Saracen’s belt and yanked him out from behind the curtain. Gaethine jolted off his pillow.

Gaethine jolted off his pillow.

It was plain he recognized the Saracen in a heartbeat. There was not even a flash of his usual sullen annoyance at unexpected visitors.

But after his first stare of blank astonishment, a wide-​eyed, tremulous look of disbelief bloomed across his face, coloring his waxy skin with a fine flush that resembled returning health.

A wide-eyed, tremulous look of disbelief bloomed across his face.

Joy. Hosanna. Aed shook with a surge of jealous fury until it hit him: Hope. That was why Gaethine had never looked at him like this. Hope was the one thing Aed couldn’t offer him.

“Recognize him?” Congal asked proudly, apparently blind to everything Aed had just seen. “The Saracen doctor from Lothere! Here to finish that visit you were too impatient for last time, eh, man?” He whacked the doctor between the shoulder blades. “Get doctoring, Mahomet,” he added in a growl of English.

The doctor stumbled closer to the bed, but he kept his arms folded. Gaethine frowned and planted his hands on the mattress so he could push himself up to sit. Aed watched them both, with the absurd hope that Gaethine would banish the doctor and they could all pretend this moment had never happened. And that he could forget that look of exultation.

Aed watched him.

“Well, doctor?” Congal crooned. “Here’s your patient. You know what to do.”

“I need my bag,” the doctor said. “With my tools and medicine.”

Congal clucked his tongue. “But of course. I shall just ask—”

“And my purse,” the doctor interrupted. “And my prayer book and rug.”

'And my prayer book and rug.'

Congal cried, “Your prayer book? Now just you—”

“And my horse!”

His horse?

Aed cried, “Congal!”

“Your horse?” Congal wailed.

“And my sword! And my knives!”

Aed grabbed a fistful of wolf fur and swung Congal around. “Congal!”

Congal gibbered, “What? What kind of doctoring is he going to do with his sword?”

'What kind of doctoring is he going to do with his sword?'

“You stole from this man!”

“You’d have me let a prisoner keep his sword? To cut off my head while I’m a-​sleeping?”

Gaethine gasped, “Your prisoner?”

“Aed, you must see this sword!” Congal gabbled. “He can have my sword! He can have ten swords! You’ve never seen anything like it! It’s curved like a sickle and the steel—”

“You shall return it! All of it!”

Congal’s mouth snapped shut and he lowered a sullen glare on Aed.

He lowered a sullen glare on Aed.

“His weapons will stay in the gatehouse,” Aed commanded, “for him to recover when he leaves. And you’ll return the rest of it at once! If so much as a hair of his head landed in your bag, then I want it returned!”

“What,” Gaethine asked, “is going on?”

“Congal seems to have forgotten how guests are treated in this house! And so have I.”

Aed turned to the Saracen, took a shaky breath, and ventured forth in English.

“Congal will be returning your… everything. Now, please follow me? You’ll be wanting to wash, and…” Aed gestured vaguely at his waist. “…your garments. And eat a bite.”

“What is going on?” Gaethine asked again. His voice was not as frail when it simmered with anger.

'What is going on?'

“I’ll tell you later,” Aed grumbled. He avoided Gaethine’s eyes and stepped between Congal and the Saracen to shove the door open. “Follow me, please,” he said to the Saracen.

He stopped in the doorway to call back to Congal.

“You’re coming too, Bosoms. I need you to translate.”

Aed hailed a chambermaid and saw the Saracen installed in the room directly above Gaethine’s. He did his best to make up for the nature of both his invitation and his welcome, but Congal’s sneering didn’t help matters. It was plain he and the doctor detested one another, and the doctor’s opinion of Congal had been transferred to Aed.

They left the Saracen to his belongings, his hot water, and his cold meal, and stepped out onto the landing together.

Aed muttered, “You’d steal the fucking pennies off a dead man’s eyes.”

'You'd steal the fucking pennies off a dead man's eyes.'

Congal laughed. “Speaking of silver, Aed…”

Aed stopped and stood in his way. “You are kidding me.”

“What? You promised me silver, and gold if I was quick about it, which I reckon I was.”

“You are fucking kidding me. If you didn’t take that man’s shoes it’s because they weren’t your size!”

Congal dropped his smile. “Aye, but I didn’t get to keep any of it, so I’m still owed.”

Aed glared. These days the littlest thing woke a senseless anger in him: an unholy desire to knock things over, to sink his fist into something that would crumple or crunch. A belly, say, or a jaw.

Congal rolled his eyes and sighed. “Listen, laddie. You sent me to kidnap a man in a foreign king’s lands. You sent me and not some other man precisely because I haven’t any fucking scruples—so don’t act offended if I do a few unscrupulous things along the way, aye? The point is: I would steal the fucking pennies off a dead man’s eyes… if you asked me to, Coz. That’s why you keep me around, in spite of the stench.”

He lifted his arm and slapped his armpit in illustration.

Aed snorted and turned for his door to hide his smile.

“Besides,” Congal added, with a bounce and a clink at Aed’s side, “’tisn’t for my own self. I have to pay my men.”

Aed stopped to unlock his door. “Right.”

“I do! They’re wanting to go home for Easter, and so am I. Sweet Mistress of Heaven!” he cried as the door opened. “Wine!”

Congal lunged through the doorway like a dog released from his kennel. Aed shook his head and followed him inside.

Aed shook his head and followed him inside.

“Care for a snoutful?” Congal offered.

“Cock off, cunt face.”

Congal laughed. “Fucking hilarious.”

Aed crouched beside his writing table and dragged out the locked chest in which he kept a few handfuls of ready coin.

“If we leave straightaway,” Congal said, pausing to gulp down a few swallows of wine and pant for air, “we can make it to Cnoc Leithid by nightfall. Mass at dawn in Colban’s chapel, and we’ll be home just in time for Easter dinner. You should come with us, Aed. My parents will be glad to see you.”

“I can’t do that, remember?” Aed grumbled, stacking silver shillings in even piles for Congal’s men. “I have a guest.”

“Ach! To be sure.” Congal topped off his goblet and drank another swig.

“Anyway,” Aed said, “I’ve been treated like a child often enough lately. I’m in no mood to hear your mother telling me how much I’ve grown. I quit growing years ago.”

“’Twouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t knit your sweaters to a fit a ten-​year-​old.”

Congal sipped his wine.

Aed snorted. Congal sipped his wine and stared out the window at the bay, and Aed dug through a jumble of hacksilver and broken sword fittings. Finally he came up with the folded scrap of gold foil he’d remembered seeing in the box. He lifted the piles of silver onto the edge of the table, stack by stack, and slapped the piece of gold beside them.

“Silver,” he announced, “and gold because you were quick about it.”

Congal swiped the gold off the wood before he finished speaking. Aed locked his box and stood to see Congal frowning over it.

“That horse and sword are worth more than this,” Congal muttered, tossing the scrap lightly in his hand to gauge its weight.

Aed’s annoyance at the Saracen’s mistreatment flared again, and he pinched the piece of gold out of Congal’s hand. “Then why didn’t you just kill him and rob his body?”

Congal planted his hand on his hip and twisted his wet mouth into an ugly scowl. “Because of Gaeth.”

“Then I reckon you aren’t needing the gold!”

Aed expected Congal to protest or wheedle. Instead he said grimly, “No, I’m not. I’d give him the skin off my back if it could do him any good. But my men are needing paid.”

He pulled out a purse and swept the piles of silver into it. Aed stood there like a fool, holding a scrap of gold foil over his head.

“How is he?” Congal muttered. “He isn’t looking well.”

Aed lowered his arm. “Is he looking any differently?”

'Is he looking any differently?'

Congal tucked his purse back into his coat, and Aed limply handed over the piece of gold. Congal tucked that away too.

“Aye, but I couldn’t say how,” he said. “Mayhap his color. He’s redder than usual, I was thinking.”

“That’s only because he was just waking. And he was surprised to see you. And so touched that you offered him your wolfskin.”

Congal laughed and picked up his goblet. His moods changed so easily. It took no more than a small joke or a bit of teasing to pitch him back over into exuberance. Aed envied him.

“Fancy Gaeth in a wolfskin!” Congal said. “I hope I live to see it. Anyway, laddie, the doctor’s here, so he’ll be back to his old self in no time. What about you? What have I missed?”

He flopped down on Aed’s bed with a clank of silver medals, careful to hold his goblet steady, and looked up expectantly. Aed saw him sprawling atop the bedclothes and—glad as he’d been to see him arrive—wished he would go away. Suddenly Aed was so very tired. He wanted to lie down alone.

He wanted to lie down alone.

“Eh, man?” Congal prompted with a slight frown. “Any trouble from Old Aed?”

“No, no, none at all. Nothing much happened at all.”

Congal had left before Murchad had arrived, but Aed couldn’t find the strength to launch into the telling of that strange tale. If Congal spent the night at Cnoc Leithid, Lord Colban could tell him all about Murchad and the horn.

Instead Aed pulled out his chair and slumped into it. “What about you? Tell me about your trip.”

'Tell me about your trip.'

“Ach!” Congal laughed. “The getting there wasn’t any trouble, but the coming back was hell! Never travel with a Saracen! You’ve no idea.”

Aed worked up a chuckle. Congal took a final swallow of wine, sprawled halfway out of the bed to set his goblet on the chest against the wall, and rolled back again, settling in to begin a long tale. Aed relaxed against the back of his chair, relieved.

“I always thought Gaeth was a wet blanket,” Congal said, “but Mahomet makes him look like a scrap of damp washcloth. He doesn’t eat pork. He doesn’t eat any meat if it’s bloody. He doesn’t sleep in a house with a dog. He doesn’t gamble. He doesn’t drink, God help me! And he’s wanting to stop ten times a day to pray!”

Aed listened only well enough to notice if Congal asked him a question. He was too tired to let his mind wander, but like an unmoored ship it drifted. How many days had Congal been away? Not even ten. Could Gaethine’s health have visibly deteriorated in a week?

Could Gaethine's health have visibly deteriorated in a week?

Surely Congal only saw a change because he’d spent the past week with hale and hearty men. He’d forgotten the ordinary look of Gaethine. Gaethine had always been flushed and thin.

And besides, the doctor was here. The doctor had told Gaethine he could help him. And Aed didn’t believe Gaethine would utterly refuse to see him. He wouldn’t have given him that look if he hadn’t hoped to see him. That look…

After a silent moment Aed realized Congal must have asked him a question, and he’d missed it in spite of himself. He grunted, hoping it was a question for which a grunt would suffice.

It seemed not. Congal replied with unusual gentleness.

“Eh, man? What’s on your mind, then? Worried about Gaeth?”

'Worried about Gaeth?'

Aed sat up and tugged on an exposed corner of parchment, sliding the square out from beneath a book so he could look busy.

“Ach, no, forgive me,” he lied, his voice thick. “I just got to reading something on my desk…”

He saw the contents of the page, and his blood chilled. The pedigree of Lady Gwynn of Lothere, to four generations on her mother’s side. The monks at Whithorn had been obliging enough to draw it up for him. Gaethine would burn it up in a ball of fire if he ever laid eyes on it. But Gaethine hadn’t climbed these stairs in weeks. He got out of breath merely walking from his bed to a chair.

He saw the contents of the page, and his blood chilled.

The bed frame creaked, but Congal did not make a move. Was he still waiting for Aed to say something?

Then a salt-​scented breeze from the bay blew through the window to cool Aed’s cheeks, and he inhaled it gratefully. For a moment he’d felt like someone had sucked all the air out of the room.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “we’re needing someone around here to wear all those sweaters your mother knits me.”

Congal let out a crack of laughter and flopped onto his back. “A ten-​year-​old?”


“Good luck finding a ten-​year-​old whose mother lets him stay in this pit of sin. Even Giric didn’t speak to me for weeks after I brought my nephew here that one time.”

'I could make one my own self.'

“I could make one my own self.”

“Make a ten-​year-​old?” Congal laughed again. “Takes ten years to make one of those, laddie. Plus nine months!”

“Then I’d better get started.”

Congal stopped laughing and rolled over to sit up on his elbow. “Wait wait wait! This is serious. Are you back to thinking of getting married?”

“I never stopped thinking.”


Aed listened to the inevitable clinking of medals as Congal sprawled over the foot of the bed to take a fortifying gulp of wine. He drained his goblet and flopped back again.

“What’s Gaeth going to say about that?” he asked.

Aed closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. His entire purpose had been to avoid the subject of Gaethine.

“More to the point,” Congal added, “what’s your wife going to say about you and Gaeth?”

Aed twisted around in his chair to shout. “Nothing! There’s no ‘me and Gaeth!’”

“But I thought—”

“That’s over with and done! You weren’t thinking that would go on after what he did?”

Congal smiled weakly. “Good point.”

“I was just curious about what it’s like, and now I know, so that’s over. No need to remind Gaeth about it. Nor me!”

'All right, I hear you...'

“All right, I hear you…”

Aed hooked his arm over the back of his chair to lean his forehead against his hand. His head was spinning. No, the whole world was spinning and his head was stuck in place.

“Anyway,” Congal said, “I’m glad to have you back. But I wish you wouldn’t go off and get married straightaway. Who’s the bride?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? Then you’re doing it backwards, man. Take Uncle Congal’s advice. First find the woman. Then make up your mind, are you wanting to get shackled to her for the rest of your life or no. If you go looking for trouble, you’re bound to find it!”

Aed slid his hand down to cover his eyes. “There’s one,” he muttered.

“One what?” Congal waited in vain for an answer and finally guessed, “One woman?”

'One woman?'

Aed grunted.

Congal slid his hand beneath his tinkling necklaces to rub his neck. He waited, but finally figured it out for himself. “I thought you said she was too young.”

“My mother was twelve.”

“Your mother!” Congal flung up his hand, scattering his medallions to clank back against his chest in a silvery clatter. “Fuck me, I never thought to hear you name your parents as a fine example of a marriage! Anyway, Sigefrith will never let you have her now. Not if he finds out who kidnapped his Saracen doctor.”

There was a hint of triumph in Congal’s voice, but Aed was wise enough not to mind it. All good men took pride in their work. Even unscrupulous rogues.

Aed let his hand fall from his eyes and turned to Congal. “Let me worry about Sigefrith. ’Tisn’t up to Sigefrith anyway. Cynan said her father swore to let her go to the man she loves. I’ve only to make her love me.”

'Let me worry about Sigefrith.'

Congal pouted and looked pained, but it seemed he could not deny the possibility of that, for he only whined, “I wish you wouldn’t. You’ll spoil everything for us here. We’ll have to wipe our boots and close our mouths when we chew and step outside to fart. We’ll have to have manners. All the lads will start bringing their wives.”

“Then get married and bring your own wife.”

Instantly Congal’s face contorted into such a pucker than Aed had to laugh.

“I will not get married to keep you company!” he said, shuddering. “The sister of me is good for everything a wife can do except bed matters. And that’s the one duty I don’t want to turn over to one single woman!”

'And that's the one duty I don't want to turn over to one single woman!'

“Then bring your sister,” Aed teased, “and take turns with my maids.”

Congal laughed. “Curse you! You think of everything. No, I have a better idea. Marry my sister!”

“You’d let me?”

'You'd let me?'

Congal’s grin went a little feral. “Eh, on second thought… I know where you’ve been.”

Aed laughed, but then he wondered what Congal meant by that. It seemed he couldn’t think of anything without coming back to Gaethine.

He turned to his table to hide his awkwardness, and he picked at the edge of the parchment. According to the monk, the girl’s name was written “Gwynn.” He wondered whether she’d thought him a gowk for writing to “Guen.”

Days would pass and he wouldn’t think of her, and suddenly he would wonder whether she ever thought of him, and become intensely curious to know what. She hadn’t answered his letter with so much as a single, second-​hand word. But she’d sent to the doctor because he’d asked.

“Anyway,” he said to Congal, “you’re knowing I love Bebinn better than my own sisters, but she’s too old. ’Tisn’t a bedmate or a housekeeper I’m looking for, but a mother of sons.”

'Cannot you just acknowledge one of your bastards?'

Congal grumbled, “Cannot you just acknowledge one of your bastards?”

“My kin would never allow him to inherit. I’m lucky they allowed me to inherit. Anyway, I owe it to my father. Look at all the pain he took to make me.”

“Now that’s more like you,” Congal said dryly. “Calling your mother ‘pain.’”

Aed laughed, but his laughter only aggravated the ache in his chest.

Congal wanted everything in this castle to stay the same, but Congal had a real home to return to. He had parents who teased and tweaked one another and whose headboard could still be heard to bang against the wall at night. He had a doting spinster sister who loved no man better than him, and youngsters running in and out who worshipped at the altar of their bawdy Uncle Congal instead of calculating how much he would be worth when he died.

Congal had a mother who knitted sweaters and cooked Easter dinners, and who, in her idle moments, got up to stand in the doorway and look out onto the hills, hoping to see him arrive.

He would settle for being the man.

Aed did not particularly want to be a husband, and he could not imagine himself a father. But sometimes he fantasized about a real family once again inhabiting his father’s home. Since he couldn’t be a woman or child he would settle for being the man.

“Should have mentioned it,” Congal said with a conclusive slap to the mattress as he heaved himself up. “Could have kidnapped her for you while I was there.”

“God, no!” Aed cried. “I cannot even trust you with a Saracen’s shoes!”

“God help me, I never touched his shoes!”

'I never touched his shoes!'

“Only because they didn’t fit you!”

Congal laughed and clapped Aed’s shoulder. “Not sure your sweetheart would either. She’s a little thing. Looks like a tight fit!”

“Don’t make me see how well my fist fits your windpipe,” Aed threatened.

He was trying to tease, but in truth he held his fists hidden in his lap, and sat hunched over and knotted up with desperation. Now that Congal was leaving, Aed didn’t want him to go. But he also feared that if he wasn’t left alone he was going to fly out and massacre someone.

“Certain you won’t come with me?” Congal wheedled, though Aed thought his voice held a note of concern. “We’ll stand you up against the wall and put a mark for your height, right next to mine, so Mother remembers what a big boy you are.”

“I can’t go anywhere,” Aed muttered. “You’re knowing that.”

“Gaeth isn’t going to speak to you for days anyway.”

Aed rocked on his chair until the seat creaked and he made himself stop.

“Anyway, I’ll kiss my parents for you,” Congal said. “And Bebinn, too, but I’ll tell her she mustn’t get any ideas.”

Congal shook a scolding finger like an old grandmother, and Aed looked up at him and forced a smile.

“You’re coming back soon, aren’t you?” he asked Congal, hoping he didn’t sound too desperate.

'You're coming back soon, aren't you?'

“Ach, to be sure! Just doing my filial duty and whatnot. Should be back by Tuesday, God willing. Damn it!”

Congal smacked his own face, and Aed laughed a real laugh. “What was that?”

“It’s the damned Saracen! He can’t take a shit without God’s willing. Now he’s got me saying it. Smack me when I do that, man. My palm’s getting sore.”

Aed nodded vaguely until Congal grabbed his shoulder in an iron grip.

“And don’t be fretting yourself about Gaeth. Mahomet is one sorry-​looking Moor, but he’s a good doctor. I saw what he can do.”

Aed didn’t trust himself to say anything, so he nodded again. Gaethine might never forgive him for having the doctor kidnapped or writing to Lady Gwynn. But if he lived, it would be worth it.

“He is going to get better,” Congal said. “God willing.”

Aed didn’t smack him.

Aed didn't smack him.